About two years ago, I made a goal that I would not spend my 50th birthday in cold weather. If you have a winter birthday and live somewhere seasonal, you understand my pain. My birthday, January 5th, is an awkward one to have. In addition to it being bleak, and, apparently, the most popular day to put Christmas trees on the curb, it’s also the first weekend after the holidays when everyone is too broke, too tired, and too depressed by the weather to be interested in leaving their homes.
With my plan to be somewhere warm on my birthday, my original intention was to go to Corfu Greece because at the time that I set this goal, I was also binging The Durrells, a lovely pre-WWII series that takes place there. That was where I was going to go until it dawned on me that while Corfu may be a gorgeous oasis during the warmer months, it wasn’t exactly going to be the sunny paradise I was looking for. I wanted one simple thing: to stay in a faraway place where my hotel room was right on the beach. As I hoarded all the Amex points and miles I could gather, I went on a search for the perfect location.
It wasn’t the island of Roatan which is part of Honduras, that found me first, but the hotel I discovered by chance. The image was simple: a small hotel right, aptly named The Beach House, with only 14 rooms mere seconds from the water. I knew I had to be in that spot when I turned half a century. Being someone who prefers my islands to have a stray chicken or two running around along with a local flavor still intact, the more I learned about Roatan the more I knew I chose right.
Roatan is nothing short of amazing. It’s a tropical paradise in the Caribbean Ocean, 40 miles off the mainland of Honduras with a diverse culture and rich history that sits atop of the second largest coral reef in the world— the Mesoamerican. Part of the Bay Islands, Roatan was settled, visited, and fought over by England, Spain, English, Dutch and French pirates, and the Garifuna people who are a mix of people from West Africa, Carib Islands, and Central Africa who eventually settled in Punta Gorda, a section of Roatan that these people still proudly call home to this day. In today’s mix, you will also find a large population of mainland Hondurans, Creole and a ton of ex-pats who call Roatan home. While Spanish is the official language on the island, English—a holdover from the days when the British crown claimed the islands and pirates were plentiful on Roatan—is spoken universally.
The pineapple is known to be the symbol of hospitality and was the first thing we saw hanging outside when we arrived at The Beach House. While the weather resembled what felt like the day after a hurricane— wet and windy— it was a welcome sight after a long, exhausting day of travel. We planned our trip at the tail end of the rainy season, arriving on December 30th, and were fortunate enough to have the day we arrived as our only wet day. Despite this, the open-air hotel with an ocean that greets you steps away from the lobby was stunning, and I purposefully chose a room on the ground floor so I could achieve my plan of being able to walk right out to the water in seconds. We were there for New Year’s Eve and after the fireworks celebration, I stood in the surf minutes after midnight.
I can’t say enough amazing things about our hotel, you can view some of the breathtaking photos on their Instagram page. Being a small and intimate place, we were able to get to know the staff who felt like friends when we left. We fell in love with Henry, the groundskeeper, and heartbeat of the hotel, who maintained it as if it were his own home and who did anything to make our stay more enjoyable. In addition, the wonderful people who managed the hotel saw to our every need and even put flowers in my room for my birthday.
The Beach House was taken over by new management in 2021 after which it went through massive renovations to make it the most luxurious hotel in the West End. The new ownership kept the tree that grows right through the hotel despite being told there would be fewer issues if they took it down. There is a luxurious open-air hotel restaurant and bar called Mila del Mar that we ate at a few times and has expansive views of Half Moon Bay, and right next door is a local bar called Sundowners where shoes are definitely optional.
THE WEST END
As with most islands, there are several different sections of the islands where tourists stay. In Roatan, there are two that are most popular, the West Bay and the West End, and they vary greatly. The West Bay, which I visited briefly, has larger hotels, and wider beaches, and is perfect for someone who prefers to be tucked away in a a relaxing resort atmosphere with local culture at more of a distance. It also attracts cruise ship passengers who visit for the day. The West End, which can also attract some cruise people, is a long strip along the water with gorgeous views, is more lively with shops, restaurants, and other stores, and has more of a local, authentic feeling. Imagine it like a small beach town. We stayed on the West End and, in my opinion, was the better choice. The Beach House is situated at the start of West End and allowed us to stay in a tranquil, relaxing hotel while also being able to walk right outside our hotel and be among a lot to do. We were able to eat at many amazing restaurants on the strip. My advice to anyone traveling to Roatan is not to do all-inclusive, the food is just too good to pass up.
Speaking of food, we had access to a ton of restaurants minutes from our hotel. At first, the sight of many of them might be a bit jarring. Some looked like simple sheds, and all of them were super casual. Every morning we had baleadas, which is a classic Honduran food of a tortilla filled with mashed beans, eggs, cheese, and additional options, like avocado, bacon, or just about anything you can think of. The tortilla is folded in half and usually eaten with crema fresca. I’m currently championing for baleadas to be the taco of 2024. They’re that good and we ate them every single morning at a local place called Bean Crazy. Each restaurant had something special, like Sandy Buns famous cinnamon buns, the best jerk chicken at Anthony’s Chicken, cheap but delicious eats at a stand called Yahongreh? (pronounced: You Hungry?), and insanely good seafood ceviche and conch soup at Happy Harry’s Hideaway (the building with the famous I Heart Roatan on the building). As it turns out, Harry of Happy Harry’s Hideaway grew up a town over from where I did in New Jersey so we had a lot to talk about. The best meal we had was from a Costa Rican restaurant called Pura Vida where I ate the most flavorful Chifrijos and Frank ate delicious Rondon soup, sometimes called Run Down. We loved the restaurant so much that we ate there twice.
WHAT WE EXPERIENCED
Aside from being lazy on the beach and swimming in the crystal blue waters steps from our hotel room, we booked a private all-day tour of the island which was such a smart choice. Our driver, Moises, took us through the entire island allowing us to select things we wanted to do while also taking us to places we never would have considered. By the end of the tour we became friends with Moises and even follow each other on Instagram now. We got to see the diversity and beauty of the island and came away feeling like we really knew Roatan and just how varied it is.
Some of our stops included:
ROATAN RUM COMPANY
The Roatan Rum Company was one of our stops on our tour and the only time I regretted packing only carry-on luggage because the rum was unbelievably good. They had a whole series of rum flavors, like mango, salted caramel, coconut, and more, all produced right on the premises. We did purchase some of their carry-on friendly delicious rum cake.
The Mangroves are a collection of salt-tolerant trees that have above-water roots that protect many species of animals, protect the coral reef, and prevent coastal erosion. The tour started in this colorful and primitive fishing village in Oak Ridge, that looked like something I imagined from Where the Crawdads Sing, where we were picked up by our boat guide Eduardo who had a warm heart and infectious smile. The first stop on the way to the Mangroves was this adorable little site where locals kept tarpons that feed right from your hand, sea turtles, and other sea life, which we got to hold. Once the animals are healthy enough they are released back into the wild. The Mangroves are pretty amazing. We were boated through the tunnels of 700-year-old trees and where many pirates buried their treasures. It was an absolutely stunning and unique experience.
Because my photos don’t do them justice, I am sharing a video tour of the Mangroves below.
Along the way, our tour guide stopped in the culturally rich Punta Gorda where we had the most amazing traditional Garifuna seafood soup at a restaurant called Wagundan that we never would have found on our own, We ate and watched live music while looking over the stunning waters. It was then onto one of the many animal sanctuaries to visit the sloths, among other animals.
SLOTHS AND OTHER ANIMALS
Animal conservation is very important to the people of Roatan so there are many animal sanctuaries to be found. Holding a sloth was on the top of my list of things to do. I was not going to leave the island without this experience and, let me tell you, it did not disappoint. Hold a sloth in your lifetime, if you can. They’re soft, gentle, and the sweetest animals. My sloth was named Betty and I also got to hold a McCaw Parrot named Irene and the most adorable and mischievous little Capuchin monkey named Michael.
ROATAN CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Not surprisingly, there is more than one chocolate factory in Roatan, one that is right on West End, and now I don’t think I will ever be able to eat chocolate that isn’t tapped at the source. At the two locations we visited, we could watch them make their chocolate. We took home several bars.
I TURNED 50
My birthday was an amazing experience and exactly what I had envisioned my birthday to be. Each morning before 7 am, I’d walk out to the hotel’s pier with my coffee— which I normally never drink but, damn, coffee in Central America is outstanding— and take in the peace and tranquility. I was grateful to be in that place on my 50th birthday. What a gift. Later in the day, I took a flying leap off the end of the pier and had dinner at our hotel’s amazing restaurant. I believe I was the only woman who jumped off the pier the whole time I was there.
WHAT I PACKED AND WHAT I WORE
It was a little tricky packing for this trip because dress in the Caribbean can vary greatly and while I sensed that Roatan was casual, I didn’t know just how casual it was. Certainly, this varies by where you stay, but in terms of our stay and our experience, dressing up was not required at all. Even for evening meals, even at the nicer places, we could have thrown on shorts and been fine. The only reason I dressed a little more for dinner was because I had lugged these things all the way there. Most days I just wore shorts and t-shirts, and there were many mornings where I’d head to breakfast in a pair of shorts and the tank I slept in. I barely put a brush through my hair most days and I hardly wore makeup. I packed a scarf to use as a wrap if I got chilly along with a lightweight cardigan but wound up not needing either except for New Year’s Eve when the weather was just drying up. Otherwise, even in January, the warmth and humidity mean you never need layers. I also never wore my heeled sandals because a) it’s sandy everywhere, and b) that level of dress would have looked ridiculous.
THE BIGGEST WINNERS I PACKED
OVERSIZED WHITE SHIRT
I have never taken a beach vacation without two things: my vintage Gucci scarf my mom passed off to me more than 20 years ago that I use as a sarong for the beach, and an oversized white shirt that has a multitude of uses. I happened to find this style at Gap Factory, a store I hadn’t been in since probably before I inherited that scarf. I bought it two sizes too big despite being oversized and it was long enough to wear as a cover-up, tied with my sarong, and even as a lightweight cover on our tour day. Best of all, I really didn’t care what happened to it. It got wet, scrunched up into a ball, and probably got a stain or two. Roatan is so casual that I walked to lunch on The West End several times wearing my sarong and white shirt over my bathing suit. The magenta jelly sandals are from Veronica Beard and are a lot more comfortable than any jelly pair I have ever owned. I got them for next to nothing last year.
SHORTS AND TEES
While not the most stylish, this is what I looked like most days. In a moment of panic, because I literally own no shorts, I bought these at Old Navy. They have a comfortable elastic back and an ease about them that also allowed me to not really care about them. I packed several of my favorite J.Crew v-neck tees.
MY MEG “BIGGIE” SHIRT
It was great to be able to break out my favorite summer shirt, the “Biggie” from my favorite boutique in Brooklyn, Meg. The shirt is just a big rectangle with a dramatic back that flows. I paired them with some white jeans from J.Crew and my patent Birkenstock Gizehs in grey alloy. I wore this for my birthday dinner.
Ugh, the swim part. Weeks leading up to our trip it was the holidays and I had about two brain cells to think about finding swimwear. Having a large chest, the biggest challenge is always finding styles for my bust. Not having the time to do a big search, I ordered some from Lands’ End that fit and looked as good as swimsuits could possibly look on my body. I got a bikini (link to top and link to bottoms) and a slimming one-piece. Needless to say, I got a lot of use from my Quince polarized sunglasses.
OTHER WINNERS, NOT PHOTOGRAPHED
These were the items that got worn but not photographed. The Monrow t-shirt dress was a purchase from last year, and the Quince jumpsuit packed well and was perfect for the weather. Had I not packed either they wouldn’t have been missed. I also never wore any of the other button-up shirts I packed except for my linen blue and white striped Quince shirt that I wore to dinner once. The small blue bag was a perfect find for nothing on Amazon and was good for short excursions nearby. I wore the Quince pants once with a white v-neck to dinner because I didn’t have it in me to pour myself into my white jeans but otherwise didn’t need them. My bright orange Longchamp nylon Neo bag goes everywhere with me and was perfect for our day tour. Longchamp needs to bring that bag back. I purchased my hat at Amazon for dirt cheap and wound up just leaving it in Roatan despite liking it very much. I didn’t have room in my suitcase to pack it and figured if I really wanted it again, I could buy another.
A VIDEO LOOK AT OUR TRIP
I shared Instagram stories during my whole time away but if you missed those, I also posted a reel with more photos and videos from our trip.
QUICK TIPS WHEN TRAVELING TO ROATAN
I truly left a part of my heart in Roatan and can’t wait to go back. If this trip has inspired you, here are some additional quick tips:
Cash is king and the US Dollar is widely accepted: Many places still don’t accept credit cards so it is important to travel with a considerable amount of cash, preferably smaller denominations of 1’s, 5’s and 10’s, and your bills should be crisp and new. We never had an issue using US dollars.
Should you take a cruise to Roatan: cruises to Roatan only port for a day which means you have to cover a lot of territory in a small amount of time. It wouldn’t be my preference, but, for some, this is ideal. Be sure to plan your activities before you arrive and do not spend the day in Coxen Hole, where the cruise ships port. According to our tour guide, having only a day to spend in Roatan, many cruise people don’t stray farther than this area, but, sadly, this is also considered the less savory part of the island that isn’t attractive or all that representative of the diversity of Roatan. I’d hate to think that any person thought they saw Roatan while staying exclusively in this area.
Island life moves slowly: They don’t call it island living for nothing. There are no quick meals in Roatan so expect slower than usual service. Trust me, it’s worth it. While islands aren’t always known for great cuisine, Roatan’s foods and flavors are excellent.
No, the water isn’t drinkable but you won’t get sick: Obviously, you still need to maintain caution but all the water and ice cubes are purified. I have a pretty sensitive stomach and never once had an issue which hasn’t always been the case for me when visiting other islands. Our hotel’s water was all purified and even though I wouldn’t drink a glass of it, I did use it to brush my teeth. We never had an issue with ice, mixed drinks, fruits, or vegetables, even at the local eateries.
Yes, people will try to sell on the beach: While the hard sell can get annoying, I tried to remember that Honduras is a poor country, and while Roatan is not nearly as poverty-stricken as the mainland, the average person can make as little as USD $4,500 a year. If you give firm yet friendly no’s they usually move on. They can also be quite friendly. I saw a jewelry designer at least once a day on the beach and after buying a pair of Tiger’s Eye earrings from him, after learning it was my birthday, he gave me a woven bracelet as a gift.
Roatan is safe if you make smart and logical choices: Roatan isn’t considered a dangerous island, however, logical caution should be observed. The biggest crime most people deal with is theft and that is usually when you trek off the beaten paths. We never felt unsafe in Roatan, even walking down the West End at night.
Scuba in Roatan is off the hook: Being situated on a coral reef, it should go without saying that scuba diving is superior here and why there are so many dive shops. If you are a diver and haven’t been here yet, book your trip S.T.A.T. I suffer from Thalassophobia, which is a fear of deep waters, and it gives me heart palpitations even thinking about going that far underwater. I did have an intention to snorkel but by the time the weather got clear for it, I was exhausted and we had already taken a glass bottom boat tour of the reef. On my next trip, for sure.
Buggy, but not as buggy as you might think: Being in Central America, I was really prepared to encounter more creepy crawlies and bugs than I did. There can be sandflies but not nearly as many as you would expect, plus, part of the job of raking the beach is to help keep them away. I never saw anything that had me jumping on chairs or anything and the only time I got bitten by mosquitos as at a restaurant we ate at that was off of The West End and closer to the trees.
You might lose power: If you travel during the rainy season, you may experience temporary power outages. Most places have generators, but if they don’t, like at a bar, for example, they will just carry on and tell you they can’t use the blender. Believe it or not, there is something absolutely charming about this. When it happens, you just turn to each other and shrug, “island living.”
Roatan is a truly special place and the most spectacular place to start a new year, and a new age. There is still so much more I want to do and see there so I, for sure, am planning for a return. I’ve only been home two days, likely still have saltwater in my ears and am beyond tired, but thrilled all the same to be back with you for another year.